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The Comedy of Errors | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Comedy of Errors | Act 4, Scene 4 | Summary



Antipholus of Ephesus, now in jail, is waiting patiently for Dromio to come and post bail. When Dromio of Ephesus does show up, however, he brings only a rope (which Antipholus sent him for in Act 4, Scene 1). Antipholus of Ephesus, tired of Dromio's nonsense, begins thrashing him with the rope, but the officer manages to restrain him.

Adriana, Luciana, and the courtesan arrive, bringing with them "a Schoolmaster called Pinch." They ask Pinch, who is also a doctor, to exorcise Antipholus of Ephesus, who protests he does not need the services of a "doting wizard" to restore his sanity. Antipholus of Ephesus asks Adriana why he was shut out of his house at dinnertime; Adriana answers Antipholus wasn't locked out, but dined at home. Antipholus insists he was locked out, and Dromio of Ephesus backs him up.

For a while, Adriana goes along with Antipholus of Ephesus's "contraries," hoping this will prevent a further descent into madness. But then the subject of the bail money comes up: Antipholus of Ephesus asks what has become of the purse of ducats, and Adriana says she gave it to Dromio of Ephesus, who claims not to have received "a rag of money" from Adriana. Antipholus of Ephesus believes Adriana is mocking him and threatens to pluck out her eyes, at which point the officer and his men restrain Antipholus and Dromio, tying them both up.

Seeking to defuse the situation, Adriana offers to pay Antipholus of Ephesus's debt if the officer will release him. She asks Pinch to take Antipholus and Dromio home, and the doctor agrees. Soon after these men leave the stage, however, Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Syracuse come running in with swords drawn. Adriana, Luciana, and the officer think the prisoners have escaped and are out to kill them, so they flee "as fast as may be."


Just when the errors seem to have reached their peak, a new character is introduced to take the confusion to the next level. Pinch, a schoolteacher who moonlights as a conjurer, is clearly not up to the task of restoring Antipholus of Ephesus's sanity—assuming it has even been lost. To a modern audience, he comes across as an odd mixture of medical doctor and religious exorcist, categories less clearly distinct in Shakespeare's day. He begins by asking to feel Antipholus's pulse, but then immediately lapses into a grandiose ritual speech:

I charge thee, Satan, housed within this man,
To yield possession to my holy prayers,
And to thy state of darkness hie thee straight.
I conjure thee by all the saints in heaven.

Quack doctors and fake magicians were common features of early modern English drama, stock characters who could be counted on for a chuckle. The mainstream Anglicanism of Shakespeare's time taught that miracles were a thing of the past, so any apparently magical feats must be the devil's work. Would-be wizards are mocked at length in Henry IV, Part 1, which features a Welsh nobleman who claims to "call spirits from the vasty deep." His English kinsmen find this hilarious.

The whole conjuring scene may also be a jab at Catholicism, which Shakespeare's Church of England contemporaries saw as a religion preoccupied with angels, demons, and other spirits. One famous cleric who took this view of Catholicism was Samuel Harsnett (1561–1631), Anglican archdeacon and author of A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures (1603). In this treatise he argued Catholic priests were corrupting the populace "under the pretence of casting out devils."

This scene also reflects a troubling social reality: the mentally ill in Shakespeare's day were treated very poorly. Nobody at the time really understood the pathology of what they termed "madness," but, as Pinch shows, they were not afraid to act on their hunches: restraint and confinement were common tactics for managing those seen as mad. In the late 16th century, the idea of seeking an internal cause for mental illness was relatively new and not yet widely accepted. For the most part "madmen" and "madwomen" were still believed to be victims of witchcraft or demonic possession.

In this play Antipholus of Ephesus's brush with madness is brief enough that it can be played for laughs: the attempts to exorcise and restrain him are ultimately a continuation of the wacky "errors" from previous scenes. One thing that makes this comedy palatable is the fact that Antipholus is not, so far as the audience knows, mentally ill: instead, he is understandably angry and confused after an extremely frustrating day. In later Shakespearean works, however, madness is a subject for pity, not laughter: Ophelia in Hamlet drowns herself in a fit of "distraction," and Edgar of Gloucester (in King Lear) gives a chilling performance as a denizen of a London mental hospital.

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